In my continuing mission to understand the Obama Administration's understanding of the Middle East peace process (such as it is), I turn now to Elliott Abrams, the key Middle East policymaker on President Bush's National Security Council. Unfortunately, I got sidetracked by bigger questions than those that concern George Mitchell's travel schedule.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You write this week that the peace process is a failure, for manifold reasons. But step all the way back: Do you think peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible so long as Iran both pursues a nuclear weapons program and backs Hezbollah and Hamas?
Elliott Abrams: I don't view Iran as the key obstacle to a peace agreement. Certainly, Iran's support for extremist positions on issues where compromise is needed, and its support for extremist groups, makes getting to an agreement harder. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, its influence and that of Hamas and Hezbollah are strengthened. But the problem thus far has been the unwillingness and/or inability of Palestinian leaders to make those compromises and sell them to the Palestinian public. A few years ago when Iran and Hamas were less influential, they could not or would not do it--not at Camp David or Taba, nor after Annapolis in January 2009 with Olmert. This stems from a combination of factors, not just Hamas and Iran: extremist positions no doubt have some support among Palestinians; the Fatah/PLO leadership is weak and not fully legitimate; and as implementing any agreement will take years, Palestinian leaders are greatly disadvantaged by a "shelf agreement" where all their compromises appear to come up front.
JG: In reading your piece, I was struck by how central a role Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, plays in your thinking. How tenuous is the West Bank? Could progress be made without Fayyad in power?
EA: Fayyad plays a key role. He has the trust of donors (Arab, European, and American), who see him as the guarantee official aid money won't be stolen. Palestinian security forces report to him, and know he will not order them to work for his personal benefit or just for the Fatah Party. He is also central to good economic policies that facilitate economic progress in the West Bank. But he is not a member of Fatah, did not do well in the 2006 elections, and has no clout in the PLO. Moreover, he is not surrounded by a large cadre of first class assistants. He's not a one-man band, but it does seem to me that no one else can hold this all together. Without Fayyad as prime minister, the development Palestinians are achieving in the West Bank would be a lot slower
JG: Is there a danger that the West's embrace of Fayyad could undermine him further?
EA: Yes, the Western embrace has its downside. Fayyad's most important audience is in the West Bank and Gaza: Palestinians who want their government to perform effectively. I think there's a solution, which is for Arab governments instead of (or in addition to) Western governments to embrace him. This is why I thought it was so foolish for the Obama Administration to go around asking Arab states to reach out to Israel (and be rejected, predictably) when they should have been asking the Arabs to reach out to the PA. That was politically possible and would be very useful. It would be a more fruitful diplomatic path than the one Mitchell has pursued, which has actually produced nothing but setbacks.
JG: It's my belief that settlements are the vanguard of binationalism, rather than the leading edge of Zionism. But we all acknowledge that some settlements will stay where they are in the framework of a final agreement. Do you think that the maximum Israel can offer on this issue matches the minimum the Palestinians can accept?
EA: If we can separate the issues of Jerusalem and settlements, I think a settlement solution is possible. The offers Barak made at Camp David, and that Olmert made in January 2009, are the maximum Israel can offer and give the Palestinians what they need. Olmert offered an almost one for one territorial swap (actually 99.3%, with the Gaza-West Bank link counting for 0.7% of territory). I am assuming that the Palestinians realize some compromise is necessary, and realize that an exact return to the 1949 armistice lines is not possible. If the minimum the Palestinians can accept is an exact return to the 1949 lines, there will never be an agreement. But I don't believe that; I don't think territory or the settlements are the problem. I believe abandoning the "right of return" is politically far tougher for the Palestinian leaders, and solving Jerusalem is a much harder problem for both sides.
JG: Do you give the so-called BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions) any chance of success? In Europe the strategy appears to be working. And, doesn't the existence of the BDS movement put more pressure on Israel to achieve permanent borders, and the recognition of the majority of Muslim states, sooner, rather than later?
EA: If that movement were fair and reasonable and had as its goal sensible progress toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it might have more impact on Israelis. No doubt it worries them. But it seems more motivated by anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews and Israel than by pragmatic desires to advance a settlement. The extraordinary bias in Goldstone Report, which deems Israeli self-defense a crime; the publication in the European press of stories about Israelis selling body parts from Arabs, reminiscent of the lowest forms of medieval anti-Semitism; the efforts to arrest Israeli officials when they travel to Europe-- these all seem to Israelis (and to me, sitting in Washington) to be asking Israel not for reasonable compromises but for surrender. Israelis want to achieve permanent borders and they want recognition by Muslim states; they do not need European pressure to seek those goals. But their society is healthy and it will not commit suicide in a quixotic effort to achieve acceptance and popularity among foreigners whose prejudices against the Jewish state are unconquerable.
JG: You say that Goldstone treats Israeli self-defense as a war crime. But looking back, do you think Israel made any mistakes in its incursion into Gaza, and do you think that some of Israel's actions could, in fact, constitute war crimes?
EA: The issue is not whether Israel made any mistakes of policy, strategy, or implementation, nor whether any Israeli soldier violated his instructions. As to the latter, I assume that happens in all armies, and all decent armies, like ours and the IDF, investigate and punish misconduct. But only Israel gets a UN Human Rights Council "report" whose biases and errors should be a source of shame to that Council (though even at its young age it is obviously beyond shame). As to errors of policy regarding Gaza, they absorbed 8,000 rockets and mortars aimed at civilians before they went back in, all the while devoting enormous energy to developing their defenses from such weapons (the "Iron Dome" system) so that they would not need to go in again. Name the country that would take 8,000 attacks against civilians without responding before criticizing Israel for doing so. The question that presents itself, I think, is whether a tougher response earlier on, shortly after leaving Gaza in 2005, would have taught Hamas the lesson it has now apparently learned and led it to stop the attacks on Israel from Gaza.
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